March 2018
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Lessons Learned: Remember H1N1?

A little embarrassing, wasn’t it?

H1N1 was pretty standard as far as overreactions go. The media conjured up a vision of biblical plagues and many bought the story hook, line, and sinker. Hysteria is exciting and the experts telling us that Armageddon lay round the corner were more interesting than the experts telling us to wash our hands and stay home if we were sick. Hollywood does not make movies about staying home when you are sick.

The subsequent let down when the flu season turned out to be milder than normal caused some embarrassment, though not enough to prevent the next overreaction. If anything, the embarrassment’s prime effect may be that it causes us to look away rather than re-examine our reaction to H1N1 – because much of what we did was pretty good. This is important, because while risk management often seems harder that it is, the truth is that we already know how to do most of it.


They say that repetition improves comprehension and the H1N1 information campaigns definitely got our attention. Signs were plastered all over and everyone heard about it over and over and over. The prevention message was pounded into each and everyone of us until there was no excuse for not covering your mouth when you sneezed. Hand disinfectant producers made fortunes. Those of us that were not surgeons had not washed our hands this much since we were children.

All of this was good; the communication campaign was a success. Next time a threat comes along we know that we will be able to get the word out. This is no small feat. We have proved that we can communicate effectively with the people we need to reach. Substitute a different message for the H1N1 message, and we all know what to do.


Some organizations took preparedness a step further. They planned what they would do if they were affected. They looked at how to define an epidemic, for example, by how many employees needed to be out sick for it to affect their operations. They looked at the possible effects and assessed what they would need to do. This usually revolved around ensuring essential services to their customers – and also what they would do if this became impossible.

The plans these firms drew up had little to do with H1N1 specifically. How they planned to provide their services relied on who would do the work and how they would do it. They identified who could take over which jobs based on their qualifications and ability, not the threat. The plans, for example, often accounted for how they would react if they had to close their offices or facilities. Again, the key factor was how they would continue to operate, not the H1N1 strain of influenza.

Why this matters

The ability to continue to operate depends on you and your plan, not on the cause of the interruption. It does not matter whether the office is closed due to fire, flood, or a flu epidemic. The plans drawn up to ensure continuity in the case of H1N1 are perfect templates for ensuring continuity in case of terrorist attack, labor unrest, football World Cups, and any number of other interruptions brief or otherwise.

If you made plans for dealing with the H1N1 scare that you never used, do not throw them out. It may all seem rather silly now, but the attention H1N1 got need not be for nothing. Risk management is neither simple nor complicated, but it can be time-consuming, and there’s no need to repeat work you have already done. Review your plans with a view to reusing them to deal with other threats. And if nothing else, be happy you got people to wash their hands.

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